Uganda’s journey toward same-sex rights

Re-posting my latest writing for the Monkey Cage Blog, Washington Post.

See additional coverage at The Dish.

Who’s behind Uganda’s step forward on same-sex rights?

Published August 4, 2014

When Uganda’s Constitutional Court struck down the controversial Anti-Homosexuality Act on Friday, eyes immediately turned to the country’s longtime president, Yoweri Museveni. Museveni has been under pressure from the donor community, several of whom enacted aid cuts in response to the passing of the law in February 2014. His trip this week to Washington for the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit seemed perfectly timed with the legal about-face that was sought by the Obama administration. Was the court’s decision yet another clever political manipulation by the man who has held power in Uganda for 28 years?

The executive branch may be powerful in Uganda, but to give the president all the credit for the Anti-Homosexuality Act’s demise is to ignore the vital role played by concerned citizens and the legal community in Uganda. Ten individuals and organizations — including a journalist, professor, doctor, activists and current and former legislators — petitioned the court to repeal the law on the grounds that it was passed illegally, having contravened parliamentary rules of procedure requiring quorum, and that it violated constitutional rights. Their efforts, combined with those of a robust legal team, were integral to the law’s repeal. Their victory demonstrates the power of domestic actors and the courts in promoting social and legal change.

This path to social change in Uganda – through the time, energy and sacrifice of key individuals and organizations, together with the power of the law – is no different than the path to social change in the United States. The protection of rights, especially minority rights, often comes on the back of legal rulings, sometimes even before the general public supports these rights. Recent research by Rebecca Kreitzer, Allison Hamilton and Caroline Tolbert has found that anti-discriminatory legislation can directly shift public opinion to be more supportive of same-sex rights.

Activists and scholars worry that despite recent progress on same-sex rights in places like the United States, countries elsewhere — most notably in Africa, but also Russia and India — are experiencing backsliding. In an article on the relationship between democracy and gay rights, Bard College professor Omar Encarnación writes, “Gay rights appear to be deepening more than spreading, intensifying in some regions while regressing in others.“ While there has been regression as measured by anti-homosexual legislation in a number of countries around the world, the overall trajectory of gay rights may not be as dismal as Encarnación’s article suggests.

Rather than thinking of gay rights as present or absent, a continuum may better represent the extent to which the rights of the LGBT community are being protected as well as the changing attitudes toward homosexuality within society. Expanding the protection and promotion of rights, including same-sex rights, is an iterative and not necessarily linear process. Advocacy and strategic litigation can result in key legal decisions that protect rights, and these rulings in turn can affect public opinion, followed by further public support of subsequent anti-discriminatory policy.

In the United States, landmark cases in the promotion of same-sex rightsinclude One Inc. v. Olesen, Romer v. Evans, United States v. Windsor andLawrence v. Texas. The latter ruled as late as 2003 that anti-sodomy laws — like the one that remains in Uganda’s penal code — are unconstitutional. Progress has not been without setbacks, in the United States or elsewhere, as the initial passage of Proposition 8 in California (subsequently struck down by the U.S. District Court and appeal dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court) demonstrated all too clearly. Today 12 U.S. states still have anti-sodomy laws on the books, the Supreme Court ruling notwithstanding.

While vocal American activists condemn anti-gay legislation around the world, the United States itself has not yet reached the point of full protection of same-sex rights, nor where the whole population accepts homosexuality. The most recent World Values Survey found in 2011 that nearly 1 in 4 American respondents (24 percent) say that homosexuality is “never justifiable.” This figure is much lower than that of Uganda, where close to 9 in 10 respondents completely opposed homosexuality, but still demonstrates considerable hostility towards the LGBTI community in the U.S.

If we look at attitudes toward homosexuality over time using opinion polls, we find that it can take decades for attitudes to shift. Further, negative attitudes toward homosexuality sometimes increase before they decrease. In South Korea, for example, one of the countries with the longest record of opinion polling on the topic, opposition to homosexuality, again, as measured by the percentage of respondents who say homosexuality is never justifiable, jumped from 60 percent in 1982 to 90 percent in 1990 before declining again. It’s worth noting that levels of anti-homosexuality sentiment in South Korea in 1990 are nearly the same as those in Uganda today. In South Africa too, anti-homosexual sentiment increased before declining. Meanwhile, in the U.S., opposition has fallen only gradually over time and has yet to dip below 20 percent.

Anti-homosexuality attitudes over time across four countries. Data not available for all countries in all waves. Data: World Values Survey; Figure: Melina Platas Izama
Anti-homosexuality attitudes over time across four countries. Data not available for all countries in all waves. Data: World Values Survey; Figure: Melina Platas Izama

Democratic institutions took centuries to develop in the United States but have been adopted in a matter of decades in a number of African countries. Likewise, same-sex rights ultimately may be adopted far more quickly in countries like Uganda than they were in the United States. The urgent question for minority rights activists around the world is, how can the pace of rights promotion and protection be increased.

It is not clear that sanctions on governments enacting anti-homosexuality legislation speed up the process of rights promotion, though they might. Journalist and petitioner in the recent Uganda case, Andrew Mwenda, argues that donor threats were actually the “trigger” that forced Museveni to sign the bill in the first place, despite his initial reluctance to pass anti-homosexual legislation. Rather than threats and sanctions, Mwenda advocates for diplomacy on the basis of mutual interests. Encarnación notes a similar concern, writing, “Attempts by the West to export gay rights, especially across Africa, also often play directly into the hands of local politicians eager to brand gay rights as ‘foreign values’ and to rationalize their anti-gay policies as a defense against ‘Western influences.’”

Perhaps, as in the United States, the mostly likely agents of change are domestic actors, be they civil society, legal professionals, the media or others, who employ a country’s own institutions and laws to protect same-sex rights. This course of action relies heavily on the judiciary branch, but as the case of Uganda has shown, such a strategy can be effective even in countries where the executive branch wields considerable power. Civil society actors and activists can also work in tandem with more progressive members of parliament and the executive to quietly support policy and legal reform. These partners in government can play a critical role in reducing the likelihood that government appeals the court ruling or that a new law is brought to parliament.

The Ugandan lawyer leading the case against the Anti-Homosexuality Act, Nicholas Opiyo, says continued debate and discussion on the issue of homosexuality will work toward putting a “human face” to same-sex rights. So too will the growing number of LGBT individuals who openly identify as such, increasing the number of Ugandans who have friends, family and acquaintances whom they know are gay or lesbian.

It is through the efforts of individuals like Opiyo and the other petitioners, at no small cost either personally or professionally, that countries like Uganda will continue to move along the continuum of the protection and promotion of civil liberties and rights for all.

 

 

Endangered books

IMG_2094
Jinja archives, Jinja, Uganda (2013)

My research of late has explored the responses of Muslim elites and communities to the arrival of missionaries and colonial administrators across Uganda. Sources primarily comprise of missionary accounts, official documents of the colonial administration, manuscripts and books by Ugandan intellectuals and scholars, and work by non-Ugandan anthropologists, most of whom were most active between the 1960s and 1980s.

The best and most detailed accounts tend to be authored by Ugandans, often those who played active roles in shaping the course of the country’s history. Unfortunately, these works are also the most difficult to find. Makerere University Libraries are perhaps the best resource, but you must have university affiliation to use the libraries and you cannot check out or, understandably, copy the books. Thus, many of Uganda’s most precious historical works are quietly locked away from the public.

I’ve identified a class of what I will call “endangered books”. These are books (or theses, etc.) that are now out of print or have never been published, and are virtually impossible to access or acquire without affiliation to a university with a very good library. Many of the authors have passed on, and are not able to lobby for the protection of their hard work. I don’t imagine there is a huge market for many of these books, yet unless steps are taken to republish them, a fire or two is capable of wiping out their existence.

I’m keeping a running list of these works below as I come across them. Hopefully I can convince a publisher to take interest in making sure these treasures do not fall victim to the decay currently facing many archives across Africa (see Jinja archives above). Please feel free to submit your own.

Endangered books:

UGANDA

Y.K. Lubogo. 1960. The History of Busoga. Jinja, Uganda: East Africa Literature Bureau.
Dan Mudoola. 1974. Chiefs and Political Action, The Case of Busoga: 1900-1968. PhD thesis, Makerere University

NIGERIA

Wahab Oladejo Adigun Nasiru. 1977. Islamic Learning Among the Yoruba, 1896-1963. PhD Thesis in the department of Arabic and Islamic Studies, University of Ibadan

2012: the raw and promising new year

Best wishes to you and yours as we bring 2011 to a close and ring in the new year. Thanks for reading and sharing, and I look forward to another year with you in 2012.

*               *               *

An excerpt from my final column of 2011 for The Independent (Rwanda Edition):

Shuffling through memories of the past twelve months, one is reminded of the heaving, tumultuous and heady days that made up the molding of global and local politics, innovation, and society. Almost every year feels exceptional at its end, and this one is no different. Exceptional for the unexpected uprisings, reassuring surprises, and most of all, the untimely, or perhaps just sobering, deaths.

A remarkable feature of the human brain is that emotion triggers extraordinary powers of memory – emotional events, traumatic or ecstatic, are captured in a different way from ordinary occurrences. I have many such memories this year. I can recall vividly the walls and tables of a classroom at the moment I heard that Tunisia’s Ben Ali stepped down, the living room and footage on Al Jazeera of Mubarak’s fall, the computer screen announcing Bin Laden’s death, and the Twitter feed of my phone as I scrolled through news of Gaddafi’s brutal demise early one morning, all in 140 characters or less. I also recall the unusually grey and rainy Palo Alto morning marking the first day in 57 years of a world without Steve Jobs, just a few days after the passing of Wangari Maathai. I see clearly the words of Christopher Hitchen’s last column staring back at me, in stark and final relief.

There are of course many other memories, moments captured with friends and family, as well as moments alone, preserved not as events in their entirety, but as a series of snapshots. At the end of every year, as now, there is more time to sit and shuffle through them. It feels like an exceptional year, and the past ten have felt like an exceptional decade.

The pace of progress, innovation, and change makes each decade, and increasingly, each year, feel remarkably different from the previous. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, we experienced tremendous economic growth worldwide, a sharp break from the previous several decades. By the mid-2000s, nearly every single country in the world experienced positive economic growth. The number of new infections of HIV is falling by the year, and deaths due to HIV peaked in sub-Saharan Africa and worldwide in 2004/5. Around the same time, Google went public, and together with Facebook, is now a household name in the global village. Mobile phone use has increased exponentially worldwide. In 2000, there were 12 mobile phone users for every 100 people. Today, there are around 69 mobile phone subscribers for every 100 individuals around the globe.

Change, therefore, is brazenly constant. Anyone who suggests otherwise is either deluding themselves or not paying attention. This is as true in Africa as in the rest of the world, although many both in and outside of the continent have been slow to recognize that the former has not, in fact, been standing in place while the latter dashes on.

The churning and surging marketplace for ideas is open. The stepping-stones placed by yesterday’s innovators serve as a launching pads for vaulting into the next year and decade. Even in the destruction strewn by mad and ordinary men lie the pieces that will build society anew. One can pick them up, or stargaze at glittering towers and soaring skylines far from home.

Entering the new year, we are without many of those who began 2011 with us just one year ago. The most memorable deaths on the news circuit were violent, painful, or both, untimely or just-in-time. The world is short a few tyrants, but short a good many great and beautiful minds too. Their exit is a reminder of the inexorable march forward that spares no one. There is no standing still, but there are choices, and our own expectations.

Here is to the raw and promising new year.

inspiration: Kennedy and Maathai

As I finished reading Ted Kennedy‘s True Compass in the early hours of the morning, I also poured over the hundreds of tweets and articles about the passing of the Kenyan environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai. Both battled cancer, and both, through their life’s work and struggle, have provided inspiration to millions. As a new day, a new week, and a new quarter begins, I want to keep in mind some of the lessons, hopes, and challenges they have shared.

This is the greatest lesson a child can learn. It is the greatest lesson anyone can learn. It is the greatest lesson I have learned: if you persevere, stick with it, work at it, you have a real opportunity to achieve something. Sure, there will be storms along the way. And you might not reach your goal right away. But if you do your best and keep a true compass, you’ll get there.

Edward M. Kennedy, True Compass

 

The revolution I propose requires the development of policies that work for the benefit of all citizens rather than the advantage of a few. It necessitates standing up to international interests that seek access to the considerable natural resources with which Africa is blessed for less than their fair market value. It entails implementing decisions that encourage the dynamism and entrepreneurship of African peoples, protecting them from unfair competition, and nurturing economies that add value to the commodities that the rest of the world desires so much…Perhaps the most important quality that the African leadership needs to embrace, and which is desperately lacking across the continent, is a sense of service to their people.

Wangari Maathai, The Challenge for Africa